The Cities of Refuge
20 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’”
So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation.
Joshua 20 Commentary
by Hank Workman
God had pre-planned many things and instructed Moses as to how the government of this new nation of Israel should function. One of these was the establishment of Cities of Refuge. Scattered throughout the land, these cities were set as a place of grace so injustice could be found for those who in many cases where murder had taken place. For instance, if someone accidentally killed someone they could flee to these cities and be safe until a fair trial had been heard. It stopped people from exacting revenge upon another or taking the law into their own hands. The Levites would supervise the trials as stated in Numbers 35.
What is interesting is if the death was ruled as accidental the individual could stay in the city under safe haven until the High Priest died. He would then be allowed to go free and start a new life. If however, the ruling was the individual was guilty, he would be handed over to his avengers. The crime would fit the punishment but in the intermediate the individual was safe and the trial would be fair.
God was and still is very interested in justice and this set the protection in a time when the culture did not always protect the innocent. Truly it was the beginning of someone being innocent until found guilty.
Throughout Scripture, we see pictures of the city of refuge for the believer. Psalm 46 it states, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Such references to God being our refuge are found over 15 different times.
We can draw the lines to this instituted law of protection as found in Jesus. Like the cities, He is within easy reach of those in need. He is open to all regardless of what sins we have in our history. As a city gave the ability for someone to live, we find incredible life within Jesus when we make Him Lord. In an interesting comparison, the cities of refuge and their purpose and laws stated the people who fled there had to be within the boundaries of the city. Only being in Jesus may we find ultimate protection. Finally, I think truly worth noting is the issue of genuine freedom being found once the High Priest died. What Jesus did on the cross and his resurrection that followed brought the most amazing freedom to all who will come to Him.
Joshua 20 Commentary
by Brad Boyles
It’s one thing to say that we believe in God as our refuge and strength, but it’s an entirely different experience to go through circumstances where this is all we can cling to. If that belief is never challenged, then it’s fair to ask, “Do we really believe it?”
Do you really believe that the Lord will fight for you? Will you trust Him when everything falls apart?
There are these two things, then, that cannot change and about which God cannot lie. So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us.Hebrews 6:18 GNB
The LORD is like a strong tower, where the righteous can go and be safe.Proverbs 18:10 GNB
Again, do we stand on the sidelines cheering on this idea or do we actually put it into practice? I know I have been guilty of this. It’s easy to tell people to “just trust in God” when you aren’t the one being thrust into turmoil.
You can run away to one of these cities, go to the place of judgment at the entrance to the city, and explain to the leaders what happened. Then they will let you into the city and give you a place to live in, so that you can stay there.Joshua 20:4 GNB
Also, consider the parallels here with Jesus. A person who inadvertently killed another could flee to one of these cities for protection until their trial. If found innocent, this person would then be protected until the death of the current high priest. After that, they would be free to return to their home.
We can flee to Jesus and find forgiveness but only after trusting the in the death of Jesus to pay for those sins. It’s interesting that a person found innocent could only return home after the death of the high priest, and we will only return home (to Heaven) through the death of Jesus Christ.
The main point is clear. Our God is faithful, loving, and full of mercy. He will protect those who come to Him in humility and confess their sin. This chapter is simply a reminder of how mighty our God is to save.